Innovation is all about putting on the proverbial thinking cap.
Now engineers are vying to produce an actual thinking cap – at least one that can measure the most rudimentary signals of thought. The US Department of Defense is pushing for the development of cheap, wearable systems that can detect the brain waves of people and display the data on smartphones or tablets.
This past spring, the DOD awarded four companies design grants through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which is designed to spur the development of technologies not already available in the commercial market. A Phase I grant in the amount of $100,000 has been awarded, with those entities competing for a possible Phase II grant that could total $750,000 or more.
The Pentagon has called for the development of a small, low-cost device (perhaps as cheap as $30) to measure electroencephalography, the voltage fluctuations that occur as neurons fire within the brain. The device would work in conjunction with an app to deliver real-time information on neural activity to a tablet or smartphone.
While EEG readings are most often used to provide data on those with head injuries or who suffer seizures, the DOD notes that more recently EEG has been explored commercially in “neuro-marketing” and to provide neuro-feedback via brain-computer interfaces, allowing people to move objects or play computer games with their mind.
While an array of technologies can give indications of brain activity, EEG offers several advantages – mainly portability and cost. But the technology has several hurdles, including the knotty problem of trying to get an accurate reading of tiny impulses in the brain even as bone, scalp and hair muddle the reception.
In the near term, the DOD sees cheap EEG devices being included in field first-aid kits to provide near-instantaneous analysis of an injured soldier’s brain activity.
“For instance, if somebody was exposed to a blast and an individual goes out who is the medic, … within his kit he has this EEG system folded up,” says Brent Winslow, lead scientist at Design Interactive in Oviedo, Florida, which is working on the SBIR grant. “The individual just wears this unit for two to five minutes and you are able to assess quantitatively the presence of an injury.”
While there are limits to what level of “thinking” such a cap can detect, an accurate, affordable and portable EEG system could open up other applications.
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